When Yolanda heard the squeal of brakes from out on Willow Forks Road, she guessed it was the school bus that rolled past every weekday afternoon shortly before three. And when she heard the scream, more human than animal, she knew it was Buster.
She sprang up from the freshly spaded flower bed, still clutching a tulip bulb, and ran the length of her driveway to the road. To the left of the bus, Buster lay sprawled on the asphalt. The bus driver was coming around its front end to see what help she could offer. The faces of school children, third and fourth graders from Westport township, pressed against the bus's windows, and already two neighbors were approaching from down the road.
Yolanda pushed the driver aside, knelt by her son, and stroked his smooth light fur. "My boy," she crooned, "my beautiful boy." His ears perked up and his stubby tail thumped weakly.
"My God!" the bus driver said. "I had no idea it was yours. Even if I'd known, I couldn't have stopped in time. It—he—just leapt into the road. Right in front of us."
"Get away. Just get away. And get those kids out of here. I don't care where." For the last thirteen months, Buster had never chased cars or pick-ups down the road, and had a special aversion to school buses.
"If there's anything I can do to help," the driver said. "Call an ambulance, maybe? I'm so sorry."
"There's nothing you can do," Yolanda said. "Or anyone else." She lowered her rear end to the asphalt and took Buster's smooth-faced head into her lap. As he gazed up at her, she wet a little finger to clear the mucus from his eyes. "My son, my lovely son." She rocked him back and forth, side to side. His blood soaked through her jeans, her panties, onto her skin. She continued to stroke his fur, in places beginning to clot dark crimson. Looking into his yellow-brown eyes, clasping him more tightly, she saw them turn to cold, filmed agate.
"Go away. Everyone. Please." She rose, scooped his body from the pavement, hoisted him over her shoulder, and carried him home. "My beautiful baby," she murmured. "My son."
Her only child. During their courtship she and Aaron had used every available means to avoid having a baby. Then, during the first five years of marriage, nothing had come of their frequent, zealous coupling. Their family doctor referred her to a specialist in Charlottesville, a matronly gynecologist who offered much good clinical advice along with her encouragement. Despite all monthly charting, temperature-takings, and hormone pills, however, Yolanda remained as barren as an Arctic landscape. "Hah!" Aaron said, after signing the last check he would ever pay that old witch-doctor, by God. "A helluva lot she knows about having babies. Never married, I'll bet."
Then, on an early November evening, three days after Halloween, something happened. They had driven in Aaron's brand-new red pick-up, with A & J CONTRACTORS / DECKS, PATIOS, AND GARAGES OUR SPECIALTIES labeled on each door, to their twice-monthly square dance in St. Edwardsville. The air in the basement of the Free Will Baptist Church was warm and steamy; as usual, the dancing was fast and boisterous. When the caller announced a break for the fiddler and himself, everyone gravitated to the huge aluminum pot of liquid refreshment provided by a newcomer to the group.
Afterwards Yolanda and Aaron couldn't agree about its difference. It was the ordinary mix of pineapple-orange juice, Sprite, and orange sherbet, but with something added. Yolanda said that her first swallow of it suddenly restored a memory of when she was four or five, and had crammed a handful of bittersweet berries into her mouth. Aaron swore it was ginseng.
Whatever its ingredients, the punch produced an immediate, noticeable effect—a rise or protrusion in the zipper area of the men's Levis and, for Yolanda, an intense tingling of the womb. No one wanted to resume dancing. She rubbed against her husband before his urge fixed upon another woman, steering him out the door and toward the bright red two-ton pick-up.
Outside the village limits Aaron slowed his truck, and with a hunter's instinct turned onto parallel tire tracks threaded between two unharvested corn fields. The moon hung huge and pumpkin-orange as the truck stopped, Aaron squirming to free himself of pants and undershorts, Yolanda unhooking her bra and slipping off all other clothes. In unison they leapt out of the truck, joined hands in front of its gleaming hood, and ran between two rows of withered corn stalks.
After about twenty paces they stopped, breathless. He grasped her shoulders, kissed her hard, and slid his hands down to her outcurving hips. When he lowered his head to her breasts, she pushed him away and dropped to her knees, nose close to the moist leaf-scented earth, buttocks pale and rounded upward toward the moon. He mounted her and entered from the rear. In an unseasonably warm November breeze, corn-shrouds rustled and danced in time to his humping.
Neither of them had come when Yolanda heard someone or something moving between the stalks. "Shhh," she whispered, "it's getting closer." Deep inside her, she felt Aaron slow his rhythm, but knew it was too late for him to stop. Bow and arrow season for deer. A hunter and his dog, she gathered. Less than fifteen feet away the movement halted. "What is it, boy? What is it?" she heard. "C'mon, let's move." Except for the cautiously modulated pressure and release, pressure and release of Aaron's thighs against her backside, along with the intensifying pleasure of his thrusting , she sensed no further motion. Then such a baying as she'd never heard before. "Shut the hell up!" the voice said. With a final grunt and long, guttural sigh, Aaron rolled off and crouched beside her, attentive to the rising, falling, rising howl nearby. "God damn it, Buster," she heard. "No use trying here for any game." The baying ceased, and soon both dog and master crunched back toward the road.
By the truck as they slipped into their clothes, she and Aaron wondered about the dog. He thought it could have been a beagle or basset hound, but she disagreed. Its voice had been too full, too resonant. Probably a black-and-tan coon dog's.
Two months later they both were dead sure their baby would be a boy. "Our son!" Aaron exclaimed. "Our number one! We'll name him Christopher Bernard, after my old man. I'll teach him how to toss and catch a football, how to throw a punch, how to smack a pitch right down the middle. I'll take him fishing with me. When he gets big enough, we can go hunting together. College, of course. And when he gets through, he can have a partnership in the business."
In one respect, at least, their foreknowledge was justified. Yolanda's baby was a male. And, for the first fifteen months of his abbreviated life, a remarkably precocious one. In fewer
than twenty three weeks after his conception, she could feel him kicking against his uterine restraints, and at seven months her water broke, allowing Aaron to utilize his red pick-up as an emergency vehicle, speeding toward the county hospital with lights flashing and horn sounding V for Victory in Morse code.
The birth itself, though quick and relatively painless, proved more sobering. Well-scrubbed and antiseptically masked, Aaron was privileged to see the emerging head of Christopher Bernard even before Yolanda could squeeze out the rest of her baby's undersized, perfectly formed torso. "Jesus Christ," she heard him say. "Is that my son?"
Dangled by his ankles from the doctor's fist, Christopher Bernard's body alone—purple-blotched and slimed with mucus—would have merited such a question. But the infant's head, Yolanda realized, was what Aaron had seen first. It was elongated and sloped at the forehead, topped by smooth black, brown, and silver hair. When the doctor whacked his tiny haunches, he remained silent, a faraway look in his amber-colored eyes.
The doctor smacked him again. "Don't," Yolanda pleaded. "Don't. You're hurting him."
"He's a stubborn little mutt, but I've got to do it," the doctor said. To make him cry. To get some air moving through his lungs." He raised a meaty, rubber-coated palm to strike again.
Before his palm descended, a howl arose from Christopher Bernard—a long, quavering, unbroken crescendo that finally died in the baby's throat as he heaved another breath. Again, again he howled, each time with greater volume and duration than the time before. Dark hair sprouted from his nape, bristling at the indignity of being suspended upside-down.
"Well, I've never heard one like that before," the doctor said. "At least we know there's nothing wrong with his lungs or vocal cords."
"Give him to me," Yolanda said. "Poor little guy." She bundled the child against her breasts and the howling ceased. With thick, dark lips fitted around a dark-ringed nipple, Christopher gulped the rich, warm milk of Paradise. He drank and drank until he fell asleep.
From then on until early in his second year, the dog-boy's development was swift and uninterrupted. Home from the maternity ward, he demanded to be fed every two hours. Overnight Yolanda alternated her breast-feeding with an enriched formula, dispensed from extra-large bottles. On the morning of their tenth day home, after Christopher Bernard finally had filled his belly and fallen asleep, Yolanda stumbled downstairs to catch her husband before he drove off to work. "Do me a favor, dear, and bring home three or four cases of Gerber's."
That did the trick. Fueled by several cans of strained liver or chicken, her baby would sleep through from eight in the evening until six the next morning. Before long he was sitting in a high chair at the supper table, devouring bites of meat and potatoes as fast as Marmur or Parpur could cut them for him. Yolanda would let him scrape the last few shreds of steak or pork from a bone, but had to keep him from becoming too voracious. "Chris, stop that gnawing! You've almost crunched that bone in two." When she took away an especially toothsome T-bone, he slid down from his high chair and began chewing one of its legs, flashing a crooked grin when ordered to stop. Unlike other infants his age, he soon became omnivorous, eating any fruit, vegetable, meat, bread, or cereal set before him.
All the while he remained smaller than average. By the time he was three months old he'd shed his baby fat, along with the dark hair that had covered his shoulders, back, thighs, and calves. His lean and hungry look derived, at least in part, from the excellence and near-constant operation of his digestive and excretory systems. When he was five months old, Yolanda delegated the task of toilet-training to her husband, who had an easy time of it. Christopher Bernard went from diapers to training pants to the bathroom potty in rapid succession and without a whimper of protest. After breaking his son's habit of lapping water out of the toilet bowl, Aaron demonstrated how big men-people rid themselves of liquid waste, and watched proudly as his son drained pumpkin-colored urine, by squirts and driblets, into the porcelain-banked pool. When heavier work was necessary, he taught Chris how to squat atop the toilet seat, gripping its edges so as not to fall through the hole after completing his labors.
Christopher Bernard's baby fat and excess calories were also burned off by bursts of vigorous activity. When he was about three months old he learned to lower himself to the floor and scuttle on all fours across the living room carpet. Bipedal locomotion began five weeks later, when he hoisted himself onto spindly legs and navigated from one corner of the room to another. Almost as soon as he could walk he was running, balancing himself with outspread arms as he romped down the hillside meadow behind the house. For his first birthday Aaron presented him with a junior-sized first baseman's mitt and after work would hit Texas leaguers and grounders to his son. Once, when Aaron was a bit too lusty with his swing, Christopher ran back, leapt, and caught the ball in his mouth. For days afterward he complained of sore teeth and gums, and never failed thereafter to use his birthday mitt. "He's a good one," Aaron said. "Learns fast."
Indeed he did. Yolanda, especially, was proud of his accumulating vocabulary, which he began piecing into sentences at the time he started putting together multi-colored wooden puzzles. He tended to end certain names and words deep in his throat, sometimes in a sort of friendly growl-—"Tomorrer I play with morrrr new toyers." One evening, when Aaron was in the basement cobbling up a bird-feeder, Yolanda heard a thump and an explosion of expletives. With his usual curiosity and desire to help, Christopher had been watching Parpur at work. Soon he clambered up the stairs to the kitchen, tentatively repeating "sonnuverbitch, sonnuverbitch, sonnuverbitch." The next morning at breakfast he frowned and turned to Yolanda. "Marmur, what's a bitch?"